Of all the mythical creatures to have stalked our nightmares over the past few thousand years, witches are perhaps the most troubling. Orcs, ogres and goblins are scary, if you like that sort of thing, but witches are the only ones to have stepped out of our imaginations and into the real world. An idea taken up by assorted Christians and crazies and used to pursue thousands of innocent women (and a few men) to their graves.
Small wonder then that witches play an important role in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy where they are the focus of hatred for the Church. In the final book, the Amber Spyglass, witches are described in no uncertain terms by a priest:
‘Witches, daughters of evil! The Church should have put them all to death many years ago. Witches, have nothing to do with them… They will try to seduce you.’
‘They will use all the soft, cunning, deceitful ways they have, their flesh, their soft skin, their sweet voices, and they will take your seed, you know what I mean by that, they will drain you and leave you hollow! They will take your future, your children that are to come, and leave you nothing.’
Pullman’s witches draw on a more contemporary idea of the witch as a sort of pagan earth mother, passionate, floaty and ethereal. But they also retain the primal fierceness of their medieval predecessors as well as a certain strange, outsider quality.
In Serafina Pekkala, the books’ lead witch, Pullman creates a character who plays a new and important role in the story. Although Lyra has mother figures of wildly varying quality – from the psychopathic beauty Mrs Coulter to lovely Gyptian matriarch Ma Costa – Serafina Pekkala offers something beyond her role as maternal protector. Despite her great age she is more like a sister and confidante to Lyra.
“I will be her sister as long as she lives.” Serafina Pekkala in The Amber Spyglass.
The new comic book adaptation by Stephane Melchior and Clément Oubrerie successfully captures the various different sides to Pullman’s witches. We are introduced to them in book two as great warriors – where a witch’s eye perspective makes the siege of Bolvangar especially thrilling.
The graphic novel format is used inventively to show Serafina’s magical abilities in this striking sequence.
This series has been particularly good at bringing out the humour in the story. These witches can also be playful and funny – even with names like Medea,
And Melchior and Oubrerie don’t hold back on the scene we’re all waiting for – the showdown between Mrs Coulter’s witch army and Lyra’s armoured bears.
The second book in the Northern Lights sequence has just been published in English by Doubleday. Unfortunately it’s smaller and less magnificent than the French original, so if you want to get the full effect of these magnificent creatures I urge you to seek out the Gallimard editions – book three is just out and it’s the best yet. Read my interview with Philip Pullman about the adaptations here.